The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War

By Michael F. Holt | Go to book overview

Chapter 22
"This Nebraska Business Will Entirely Denationalize the Whig Party"

"THERE MUST BE SOME MODIFICATION of party relations before the close of the present session of Congress," Alexander H. H. Stuart excitedly wrote Millard Fillmore in early December 1853. Convinced that the California gold strikes had permanently settled partisan disputes over economic policy and that congressional Democrats' anger at Pierce's administration had inflicted an "irremedial wound" on the Democrats, Stuart, like John P. Kennedy, Solomon G. Haven, and other Fillmore allies, believed that the impending Democratic crackup augured a merger of National Whigs and antiadministration Democrats in a new Union party. When dissident Democratic United States senators cooperated with Whigs in December to defeat Pierce's preferred candidate for Senate printer, Fillmore himself exulted that "a nucleus has been formed around which the Union men of all parties may rally and form a Union party."1

Those hoping to revitalize the Whig party also rejoiced at Congress' opening. Although Democrats outnumbered Whigs 159-71 in the House and 37-22 in the Senate, Seward described congressional Whigs as "a happy set of men" since the long-predicted Democratic rupture over Senate confirmation of Pierce's controversial appointees was now imminent. Better still, as one Whig congressman reported, "the administration is without [any] policy" around which feuding Democrats might reunite. With Democratic bloodletting now inevitable, advised Tennessee Senator John Bell, "The Whigs who are prudent will take no active part against the adminn. for the present, but let the elements of distraction accumulate before they make a combined attack."2

What happened in Congress during that session would indeed weaken the Democrats and help define the postsession "phase of politics." Those developments, however, prevented the "combined attack" by Whigs that Bell envisioned, and they also frustated advocates of a new Union party. On December 14, Iowa's Democratic Senator Augustus Dodge introduced a bill to organize the area west of Missouri and Iowa into a Nebraska Territory. The seemingly innocuous bill was immediately sent to the Senate's Committee on Territories, which Stephen A. Douglas chaired. What Douglas and others, including Whigs and Free Soilers,

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